Introduction to Coeliac Disease
Coeliac disease, or celiac disease, is an autoimmune condition triggered by exposure to gluten—a protein present in grains like wheat and barley. About 1 out of 130 people in the United States are affected by this chronic health disorder. However, fewer than 2 out of 10 have been properly diagnosed. Without knowing what is making them sick and what to do about it, these individuals are at high risk for developing serious illnesses from prolonged malnutrition and autoimmune dysfunction.
Who Gets Coeliac Disease?
This is a genetic condition that can occur in people who have certain genes (DQ2 or DQ8) in their chromosomes. Because of its hereditary component, this disease often runs in families. The chances of developing the disorder may be higher for individuals who undergo particularly stressful events, and those who eat a lot of gluten over a long period of time. The disease can occur in children, but often manifests during early to mid-adulthood. Many individuals remain unaware of their condition because it has been misdiagnosed or because they have no noticeable symptoms.
How Does Coeliac Disease Affect the Body?
The small intestine is the region of the digestive system where most nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are absorbed. Gluten causes an abnormal immune response, resulting in inflammation of the intestinal lining. The tiny fingerlike protrusions (villi) on the intestinal membrane that help the body transfer nutrients to the bloodstream are damaged. Over time, the villi flatten out and stop working efficiently, resulting in impaired digestion. Inflammation in the intestines and throughout the body, coupled with malabsorption of nutrients, leads to a wide range of symptoms.
What Are the Warning Signs of Coeliac Disease?
About half of all people with this disorder experience chronic diarrhea. Stomach complaints (including bloating, constipation, or loose and foul smelling stool) are particularly common in children. They may also have difficulty gaining weight—with malnutrition leading to growth problems as well. Adults display a very wide range of symptoms including:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Low iron levels in the blood (anemia)
- Canker sores
- Numb or tingling legs, hands, and feet
- Arthritis and other bone or joint discomfort
- Seizures (in rare cases)
- Severe, blistering skin rash
Because these symptoms mimic so many other disorders, blood testing, genetic testing, and an intestinal biopsy may be required to make a correct medical diagnosis.
Is There a Way to Treat Coeliac Disease?
A gluten-free diet is the only effective treatment for coeliac patients. This alteration in eating habits entails a major lifestyle change. Selecting and preparing gluten free meals can be inconvenient and the available foods often cost more than comparable products that contain gluten. However, the lower cost in health expenses and improved quality of life are usually worth it.
Acute coeliac problems such as skin rash, malnutrition, and digestive inflammation may be managed with medications such as steroids, supplements, and skin creams. These are temporary measures that may ease symptoms during the transition into gluten-free lifestyle. Over time, most patients with coeliac disease can return to good health as their digestive tract heals and their body begins to absorb nutrients normally again.